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A look at Hamas' labyrinthine tunnel network

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over many years, many battles, Israel has fought Hamas by land, air and sea. Now, Israel's military faces the prospect of combat in a new domain - the tunnels beneath Gaza. Hamas has been digging the underground network for two decades, and it's already assuming a key role in the fighting. NPR's Greg Myre has our story.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Here's the bottom line when it comes to fighting an enemy hiding in a labyrinth of tunnels - you don't want to send your troops there.

DAPHNE RICHEMOND-BARAK: It's very dark, and it's claustrophobic. And it's narrow, and you lose your sense of direction immediately. You lose complete sense of time.

MYRE: Daphne Richemond-Barak is an Israeli military analyst and the author of "Underground Warfare." The Israeli military has taken her into Hamas tunnels that crossed from Gaza into southern Israel.

RICHEMOND-BARAK: They are humid and suffocating, and they are incredibly scary. So when you walk in them, you would be disoriented, for sure, but also incredibly afraid.

MYRE: Hamas says it has 300 miles of tunnels - a subterranean complex that, according to Israel, includes military headquarters, sleeping quarters, as well as workshops to make and store rockets. Underground passageways crisscross Gaza. They're designed to allow Hamas fighters to quickly surface and strike Israeli troops without warning. Hamas has been shoveling for a long time. Chuck Freilich remembers the tunnels were part of the Israeli discussions when he was deputy national security adviser in the early 2000s. He sees the expansion of the tunnels as part of Israel's broader intelligence failure in underestimating Hamas.

CHUCK FREILICH: And you don't believe that the enemy can do X, and so you don't see it. And then, in retrospect, it always turns out that there's lots of information in the system, but people - smart people ignored it.

MYRE: With Israeli ground troops now deep inside Gaza, the tunnels are becoming a key factor in the fighting. The Israeli military recently said its ground forces were near Gaza's northern border when they spotted Hamas fighters emerging from a tunnel. The Israeli troops fired on them, killing or wounding the Hamas members, the military said without elaborating. Israel faces another big challenge because Hamas is believed to be holding more than 200 hostages underground. Again, Chuck Freilich.

FREILICH: I think there's all sorts of fancy technology being used to try and map them out, but we may not know everything. And there's somebody and some booby trap awaiting you at every turn. And, of course, the hostages are probably down there somewhere.

MYRE: In a recent military briefing, Israel said Hamas has constructed military headquarters directly beneath Gaza's largest hospital, Al-Shifa. Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari is Israel's military spokesman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL HAGARI: Hamas terrorists operate inside and under Shifa Hospital and other hospitals in Gaza with network of terror tunnels.

MYRE: Hamas vehemently denies this. It says Israel makes these accusations to excuse a relentless bombing campaign that's already killed thousands of Palestinian civilians. And human rights groups say the existence of Hamas tunnels does not justify Israeli airstrikes when large numbers of civilians are present. Hagari argues that it is Hamas that's cynically putting civilians at risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAGARI: Hamas not only endangers the lives of Israelis, civilians, but also exploit innocent Gazan civilians as human shields.

MYRE: Hamas first used the tunnels to shock Israel in 2006. The group dug a passageway under the Gaza border fence and emerged on the Israeli side. They seized an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. He was held for more than five years and ultimately exchanged for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners. When Israel upgraded its border fence a few years ago, it included a concrete barrier that went deep underground in an attempt to prevent Hamas from tunneling beneath it. Israel has also formed a special unit to fight in the tunnels. Still, Richemond-Barak says Israel is probably reluctant to send troops underground because the terrain would favor Hamas.

RICHEMOND-BARAK: Most military doctrines - they recommend against sending soldiers into the tunnels. Why? Because of the very high risk.

MYRE: The U.S. learned this harsh lesson when fighting the Viet Cong in Vietnam. In the decades since, militaries have developed new weapons, like bunker-busting bombs and high-pressure water hoses to flood and collapse the tunnels.

RICHEMOND-BARAK: What we're likely to see is Israel using a combination of these different methods and potentially even new ones.

MYRE: She says Israel knows that destroying tunnels is hard. Five years ago, Israel discovered the militant Hezbollah group had dug from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. She says it took the Israeli military six weeks to demolish five tunnels - just a tiny fraction of what Hamas has built.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.